I’ll never forget the first time I interviewed an important person. It was Carl F.H. Henry, the first editor of Christianity Today magazine.
Most people don’t realize that Christianity Today was founded by Billy Graham as a scholarly voice of modern Evangelicalism. Graham said he wanted to “plant the evangelical flag in the middle-of-the-road, taking the conservative theological position but a definite liberal approach to social problems.”
Henry was the perfect choice as the first editor since he was a theologian with experience as a journalist.
As you might imagine, Carl Henry was a hero to me. I was in awe of him when he came to our Christian university to deliver the prestigious Staley Lectures.
Preparation for the Interview
I was a senior and an editor of our campus newspaper. I had reserved a conference room and was ready for his arrival. You can guess how long ago it was because my preparation included a steno pad, a pen and a cassette tape recorder.
The first thing I noticed about Carl Henry when he entered the room was how tired he was. He had a long flight from the east, and was not as fresh as he wanted to be. He knew I was a tyro and was happy to help me meet our newspaper deadline.
After brief chitchat, I turned on my tape recorder and we started the interview. I scratched a few notes as he spoke, but I had someone to transcribe the tape, so I mostly listened.
I had a long list of questions for him. Far too many. Some were relevant to my news story, others just satisfied my personal curiosity about the man and his work.
Finally, after 45 minutes, his ordeal was over. We shook hands as he departed. I sat down and rewound the cassette tape to listen to it. Nothing happened when I punched the button. I discovered it recorded his voice for about two minutes before the battery died. A feeling of terror washed over me.
My Shame is Your Interview Opportunity
I strongly recommend that you interview people to gather content. You can interview anyone about anything, but it’s desirable to interview experts on the subject of your blog posts or book. Today, you can do it in person, by phone or Skype or by email. Interviews can add breadth and depth to anything you write.
Keep in mind that I’m talking about a “sit down” interview here. Reporters often interview politicians and others “on the fly,” but that’s not our focus here.
Over the years I have conducted hundreds of interviews and a few of them appear on this site. See those with Christian journalist Dan Wooding, and authors Larry Richards, Philip Yancey and Donald Williams. Each has been a popular posts.
If you’re writing a nonfiction book, you can add substance by interviewing experts on your topic. If you’re writing a family history, you’ll want to interview family members.
But you should learn from by shame and conduct the interview properly. Here are some helpful tips.
Best Interview Practices
Meet in a quiet place. You should record the interview using right techniques, but you don’t want interruptions or background noise. I’ve done plenty of interviews around restaurant tables, but you need a quiet corner to do that. Pick an office, conference room or any out-of-the-way spot.
Use a digital recorder
Most smartphones have recording apps, or you can use a dedicated digital recorder. Make sure you know how to use it long before your first interview. Check the battery indicator to make sure they have power before you start the interview. Carry extra batteries just in case you need them. Leave the recorder in front of the person you’re interviewing—you really don’t need to record your own voice.
Write your questions in advance
Use paper, a smartphone or tablet, but write down your questions. Generally, 5-7 questions are enough, and you’ll refer to them as the interview progresses. Hone your questions so they are direct and to the point. You should have done basic research before you contacted the interviewee, so don’t rehash basics in an interview. Go for the unique information your subject can supply. Phrase your questions properly—you don’t want a series of “yes’ and “no” answers.
Why are you limiting yourself to 5-7 key questions? Two reasons. First, because you should interview more than one person on the topic, especially if you’re writing a book. You want to ask different people different questions to get the most of what each has to offer. Second, because no question stands alone. You will probably have at least one follow-up question for each written question. It’s great to seek clarity, but don’t let follow-up questions pull you off-track. Above all, stay on topic.
Keep written notes
Smartphones and digital recorders are fine, but I still jot notes during an interview. I don’t try to write everything—just key responses. Sometimes I also make notes about the demeanor of the person I’m interviewing.
Written notes will help guide your transcription and editing process. It is a failsafe if your recording gets garbled in some way. Your notes will remind you of details not on the recording, such as questions that come to mind for your further research or to ask another person.
How to Transcribe Your Interview
Once you have a digital recording you need to transcribe it. You can do that by sending it off to one of the many services you’ll find on the Internet (about 50 cents to $1 per minute) which is a good option. You can do it yourself, but for most people that takes more time than it’s worth. If you decide to make the transcription a DIY project, use a tool like the free Express Scribe Transcription Software to make the task less onerous.
Alternately, you can play your digital recording in front of a microphone connected to Siri or Cortana or a transcription program like Dictation.io. It’s far from perfect, but it works and it’s free.
There is a new tool you might want to consider. It’s called Otter and it’s designed to pick up different voices in a meeting and automatically turn them into text. It isolates each speaker. Otter, which works on any Android or iOS smartphone or tablet, is still in beta as of this writing, but I found it amazing. My first test of Otter was picking up the dialog from a TV show and the results were astounding considering the different people speaking and the background music.
How to Edit Your Interview
Once you have the transcription, you must edit it. Most people think an interview should read like what they see in Rolling Stone magazine, but that’s not true. That’s an option but not always the best one.
Journalist: When did your first recognize you had star power?
Ricky Rock Star: Well, me mum recognized my talent straightaway, mate. She put a little plastic guitar in my cot when I was still in nappies.
Often it’s a better choice to put quotes in the person’s own words. The exchange above might look like this:
Ricky said others recognized his unique musical talent long before he did. He was given a small plastic guitar was one of his first toys. “Me mum recognized my talent straightaway,” he said.
It’s the same content presented in a more readable way.
You want to highlight the best stuff from your interview and bury (not use) the less than stellar comments. Accurately represent what the interviewee said, but it does not have to be in question and answer format, and you do not need to use every word you gathered.
Start Interviewing People Now
Don’t start with a legendary theologian, editor and author like I did. Practice with your spouse, child or friend. You’ll discover that interviews are a very exciting way to gather information for any writing project.
Interviews are an efficient way to collect original information for your blog or book. You’ll want to do some other research and some fact-checking, but the quotes you capture are your attribution. It’s your job to present it in an interesting way.